What is a Drift Boat? Maybe the most unusual fishing boat ever


Drift boat

With its roots firmly planted in Oregon we can trace the historical beginnings of the much famed drift boat to the McKenzie and Rogue rivers.  Back then, campers, hunters, fishermen and river runners were the prime users of such utility boats.

What is a drift boat? A drift boat is a variation of an ocean dory boat that has been modified for use on inland waters. It is a rowboat with flared sides, a flat-bottomed and shallow draft with a distinctive curved hull and pronounced rocker. There are different variations of drift boat available for specific uses. For example, the Rogue River Dory drift boat has greater carrying capacity than normal while the McKenzie Dory drift boat is better able to ride rapids.

What is a drift boat?

A drift boat is a relatively small, flat-bottomed rowing boat that evolved from the dory boat.

A dory boat was used as a cod fisher in open waters and was launched from a mother ship. It was notoriously unstable in challenging open waters due to its flat-bottom hull and shallow draft. (For more information on the dory boat read this article).

A drift boat, which is often still referred to as a dory, has the classic dory design features but with modifications that make it better able to handle river use.

It was first used on the the McKenzie and Rogue rivers in Oregon. Historically it was widely used as a fishing and hunting boat and as a river runner.

A modern drift boat is typically used by anglers for river fly fishing.

Flyfishers will brave rapids using drift boats, sometimes navigating their way on rivers in convoy formations. Riding rapids is an exercise known as “running”, and is enjoyed by intermediate to advanced rowers for the rush of handling the boat along challenging stretches of white water. You can see a drift river running in the video below.

Drift boats are also used for hunting and boat camping though it is not as popular for these activities as it is for fishing.

Drift boat river running (video)

Below is a video of an Oregon drift boat owner river running in rapids.

What is the attraction to using a drift boat for angling?

Using a drift boat offers the angler good vantage and better reach, something that wade fishing simply cannot recreate. The flat bottom hull design of a drift boat means it is exceptionally stable in calm water. It is easy to stand on the boat to cast-off without losing any stability.

A drift had similarities with a Jon boat (see our article on Jon boats here), but unlike a Jon boat, a drift boat has elevated seats (like a bass boat) and is a different shape. Unlike a Jon boat a drift boat can handle choppy water fairly easily and can be used for river running.

The shallow draft of a drift boat means it can be used in very shallow water without losing stability and without running the risk of damaging the bottom of the boat. If the water is deep enough to use oars in then it is deep enough to use a drift boat. However, the curved, upturned bow allows the boat to also cut through choppy water and ride rapids (unlike a Jon boat). (If you need a better understanding of shallow draft and deep draft read this).

So how does this affect the boat-based angler?

As you know wade fishers are constrained by static positioning. This has its serious drawbacks for striking those prized catches. A drift boat, on the other hand, can be used to expertly transport a crew of anglers behind hard to reach spots and along stretches of technical waters from shallow areas to rapids and deep choppy water.

This makes for a greater chance of fishing success and hence the popularity of the drift boat with anglers.

What does a drift boat look like?

A drift boat is a variation on the traditional dory boat design.

Struggling to recall what a dory boat looks like?

Just think of your classic rowboat – oftentimes depicted in storybooks as being used by children – but with a flat bottom and shallow draft. A rowboat has a v-shape bottom and deep draft (read about that here).

A classic rowboat has:

  • A pointed bow.
  • Straight lines along the hull.
  • Protruding keel, kind of like a backbone down the middle.
  • Rudder at the back for steering.
  • Benches used as seating (called thwarts).
  • Crutches for holding the oars in place for the rower.
  • Is easily stackable for ease of storage on land and mother ships.
  • Is made exclusivity from wood.

However, with a drift boat there are some key differences.

A dory and drift boat has:

  1. A flat bottom.
  2. Flared sides
  3. No keel (straight spine that runs along the hull/bottom).
  4. A narrow transom (rear end).
  5. A high, pointed bow.
  6. Wider beam.
  7. A different construction. It comes in a variety of materials including:
    • aluminium, wood and fiberglass.

Drift boats typically hold 3 seats: front, middle and back.

The standard design is set to accommodate:

  • 2 anglers (positioned in elevated seats at the front and rear of the boat) and;
  • A river guide sat in the middle, in a classic lower rowboat position, who operates the oars.

A drift boat is an ideal starter vessel for river angling expeditions.

Drift boat vs rowboat
Notice the design differences between a drift boat and a rowboat

Why a flat bottom? (Hull characteristics)

A flat bottom boat provides plenty of room for gliding above very shallow waters. As well as helping to create the shallow draft the flat bottom also helps avoid hull damage that could result from the threat of rocks, boulders and other debris on the river bottom.

The unique design of the hull gives rise to the characteristic lolling gait as the boat lazily skips its way down the river.

A flat hull also makes for a much more maneuverable and comfortable ride. The drift boat has no keel, therefore giving a peculiar pivoting ability through the middle.

The customary ‘cross-stroke’ enables you to instantly rotate the orientation of the bow, through 360-degrees at a simple twist of the oars.

This is useful for aligning your direction and setting your face toward your goal when angling, without twisting your stance whilst casting your line.

The rower makes all of the adjustments and at the angler’s instruction, the boat simply lays up exactly as is needed for the perfect approach.

A drift boat’s flat bottom vs the v-shape rowboat bottom with keel

What other design features should I be aware of?

Drift boats come in different types. Not all drift boats are the same. As there are a number of key features distinctive to different types of drift boat they ought to be considered so you can find the best fit boat for you.

The are different drift boat design characteristics, as outlined below, will either be well suited to your needs or ill-suited depending on the type of water-use you have in mind for your boat.

High sides and low sides

The general cadence and behavior of the water which you intend to row on will dictate your need of either high sides or low sides on your drift boat.

Deep, rushing rapids require higher sides to keep water out.

Shallow, slower more tranquil waters demand lower sides offering lower drag whilst spinning or pivoting the boat’s direction.

Walk around seating avoiding the need to hurdle benches

A drawback of the original dory design is the full-width thrift or bench-style seating.

When walking along the boat, passengers or rowers are forced to hurdle the benches to reach the father end of the boat. This is more of an inconvenience in calm water but can become much more problematic, and even dangerous, in more challenging conditions.

Modern drift boat designs do away with the hurdle obstacle by producing seated islands for easy access along the length of the boat.

Underseat storage

Current day drift boat manufacturers have minimized the clutter inside their boat designs by incorporating under-seat storage.

It is a neat method of tackling two important objectives in drift boat planning – keeping stuff out of the way and taking a load off your feet.

Under-seat storage simultaneously answers those two important questions for boat users.

Modular build for configurability – factory options

Because every expedition on a drift boat presents its own unique challenges, it makes sense that your boat offers some design flexibility.

There are some modern fiberglass designs, in particular, which offer modular compartments that detach or attach to transform the boat’s utility in minutes.

Dig deep into each manufacturer’s factory options to see what is available so you can pick the best options for your unique circumstances and needs.

If you are buying from local dealer be sure to consult with the boat sales rep to find the most advantageous set-up for you. If you are buying online, or simply researching online, dig deeper into the website than you normally would and spend some time investigating the different options on offer. Don’t be afraid to shoot the manufacturer, or online retailer, a message asking for clarification on available configurations.

What are drift boats used for?

In the early 19th century, drift boats which were originally made in Oregon were hand made for the purpose of transporting supplies along the McKenzie River. Soon they were not just being used for moving goods but were also popular for camping and other recreational activities.

By the 1940’s local river guides, who used drift boats, became popular go-to’s for budding anglers who wanted expert trafficking up and down the course with maximum efficiency.

The advantage anglers seen in using the drift boat was that it performed so well along a more technically challenging course because it “safely rode atop the waves”.

The sight of the expert handling of some specialist drift boat guides floating downstream has even been described as ‘water ballet’.

Where can you use a drift boat?

Drift boats are perfect river boats. In fact they were converted, from the original open water dory, to be used on rivers.

A drift boat can be viewed, in very simple terms, as a boat version of a kayak. Whether on boisterous white water or placid rivers and flat-water, drift boats are up to the challenge.

But regardless of the difficulty of the water, it is highly advised that you become familiar with both the course and expected etiquette along the waterway as drift boats are not immune to taking on water or sinking.

Preparation ensures that you have plenty of foresight when careering down the river, avoiding dead ends and perilous turnings.

A drift boat is used almost exclusively on rivers though it can be used on lakes, ponds and creeks.

The only drawback to using a drift on more open water, like a large lake, is that the boat will tend to catch the wind, and will be rocked more, than a traditional rowboat (which is perfect for deep lakes) and they they aren’t meant to track as well in a straight line when rowing on flat-water.

Water conditions a drift boat is well suited to:

  • Flat-water.
  • Shallow water.
  • Rapids.

Where should you never use a drift boat?

Never use a drift boat along a run that is unknown or too difficult for the person rowing. Rapids, in particular, can present some highly dangerous features that can lead to injury or worse.

Consider the American Whitewater Association‘s grading protocol for a general scale of difficulty before attempting to go down any river rapids.

Stay well within your ability.

Never use a drift boat in the open ocean especially in challenging weather conditions. For the same reasons a Jon boat is unsuitable for open ocean use, a drift boat is also unsuitable. The flat bottom, shallow draft hull of a drift boat makes it highly unstable in choppy ocean water.

Can you attach a motor to a drift boat?

Drift boats by definition are rowing boats. A drift boat can use an outboard motor but only in very specific ways. A high HP motor will send a drift boat into the banks quickly!

It is generally accepted that a high thrust, low speed (low HP) motor is best for a drift boat.

Low speed, high thrust is the best way to maintain course without rapidly losing control of the direction.

So the addition of a motor is not to be undertaken without expert advice and plenty of practice at very low speeds.

Where to buy a drift boat

There are several really good drift boat manufactures in the marketplace.

We found that Hyde Drift Boats have some excellent models that perform really well. You can also use this handy guide to help you pick the most appropriate drift boat for your specific needs.

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